The first movie I thought about when I got out of Secret in Their Eyes was Prisoners, interestingly enough. I think because Secret in Their Eyes is the movie Prisoners kind of wanted to be–a story about the destructive power of revenge without getting sidetracked by an unnecessarily convoluted mystery investigation.
The movie jumps between 2002 and 2015. In 2002-land, Jess (Julia Roberts) and Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are agents in the counter terrorism task force in LA, at a time when paranoid citizens are buying duct tape and tarps in bulk because they’re afraid of terrorists. Claire (Nicole Kidman) is the new assistant DA in the same office. Jess’s daughter is found, raped and murdered, and Ray tries to find the killer, Marzin (Joe Cole), who turns out to be the snitch that another agent in the task force is using to track alleged terrorists in a nearby mosque. Marzin gets away with it, and in 2015, Ray returns from New York city, convinced he’s found Marzin (now under an assumed identity) and dedicated to this time, bringing him to justice. He finds Jess still in the police department and aged prematurely, and Claire the new District Attorney and climbing fast.
It’s a very well put together film, with the jumps between 2002 and 2015 building both the mystery and the character relationships that define the ending. Kidman and Ejiofor are both absolutely excellent, which shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone’s who’s seen either of them in a movie. But Julia Roberts just steals the show with her performance. It’s also striking that she’s actually allowed, in the film, to look like a plain, grief-stricken woman, who has been aged by her grief. There was a deft hand with the makeup in this one, and I appreciated it. I also appreciated, by the way, what a solid friendship was depicted between Jess and Ray, with all the sexual tension saved for Ray and Claire. There’s a moment early on, when Ray tells Jess, “You’re being a dick.” And she returns. “Thanks for not being sexist. A sexist would have called me something else.”
I was charmed.
It’s an excellent film with excellent acting in it, but definitely not a happy film that’s going to leave you feeling good. It’s disquieting, if not in quite as vile a way as, say, Nightcrawler. It’s an exploration of the reality of thwarted passion and thwarted justice, and what it does to people who live with it.
I want to dig into the themes of the film a little more because there’s a lot of meat to it, so spoilers are going to happen now. But it’s not just about revenge, it’s about the nasty undercurrent of the counter terrorism efforts of the last decade plus, and about the passion that motivates people to continue.
Revenge, Guilt, and Justice
Revenge is the big one, unsurprisingly. Jess wants revenge for her daughter; Ray wants it nearly as much, to the point that he baldly suggests to Jess after Marzin gets released that they find him and kill him themselves. Jess has an extra wage of guilt for her daughter’s death because Marzin met Caroline at the company picnic and became obsessed with her there, and Caroline was only at the picnic because Jess had insisted she come so they could spend time together. Ray has his guilt because he was supposed to meet Caroline at the bakery she was abducted from, to help pick up a birthday cake for Jess, and he’d begged off at the last minute because he had work to do.
Ray’s need for revenge and closure keeps him motivated for 13 years, during which he spends every night combing through convict photos in the hope of spotting Marzin again, because the man disappeared off the face of the planet after he was initially brought in and then released. The 2015 plotline is kicked off by him spotting a convict he’s sure must be Marzin, despite the fact that the man’s got different eyes and a different nose, something he airily dismisses as just a sign that Marzin got surgery so he could hide. (This should have raised the first alarm bell.)
Ray pursues the man he’s sure is Marzin, following him after he’s stolen a car and getting caught at a chop shop. He’s saved by the police coming in, but one of the officers is killed in the process, and Jess, who is along for it, is furious. Ray’s need to find Marzin has taken over his life for 13 years and leads to the death of a police officer, ultimately.
It’s this that compels Jess to reveal her revenge. At first, she claims that she murdered Marzin a month after Ray got sent back to New York, and that’s why he fell off the map; it’s feed for her own guilt that she never told Ray, and that led to the chain of events that cause one of her brother officers to die. But Ray realizes an even more horrible truth: Jess says in 2002 that she doesn’t believe in the death penalty, that it’s not fair if Marzin gets to die and she’s effectively given a life sentence. She wants him to rot in prison for the rest of his life.
The real horrifying reveal of the film is that Marzin isn’t dead, but rather has been imprisoned in a cage in one of Jess’s out buildings, where he’s had no contact with other people and appears elderly before his time, physically broken by being confined to a small space. Jess has had her own revenge by giving Marzin the life sentence he deserves. But as Ray points out, she’s given herself a life sentence as well.
The end of the film is Ray going outside to dig a grave for Marzin, after leaving his loaded gun on the counter for Jess to use on the prisoner. Which she does. The death effectively releases Jess and Marzin from their mutual imprisonment, but at a terrible price. There’s no good answer as to if this is justice, or if this will give Jess any kind of peace. It’s likely not. Would Jess have found more peace if Marzin had been put through the criminal justice system? There’s no clear answer to this, but the reason it never happened was…
Marzin is supposedly a snitch who has infiltrated the mosque that the counter terrorism force is watching. When Ray realizes that Marzin is the likely culprit, he has roadblocks put in front of him at every turn, because supposedly Marzin is necessary to “prevent a terrorist attack.” It’s a pointed comment on the injustices America’s perpetrated and turned a blind eye to in the name of counter-terrorism.
And it’s even more pointed, when at the end Jess points out that Marzin disappeared and no one noticed. The task force completed its mission. There was no terrorist attack on Los Angeles. All of the justification for turning a blind eye to his rape and murder of Caroline turned out to be worthless.
To add one more minor horror to this indictment, initially Marzin’s handler forces a false confession from a young Muslim man to try to divert Ray. (Who thankfully does not buy it for a single second.) This is because Caroline’s body was found in a dumpster near the mosque, and I can only guess the handler through Muslims made nice scapegoats. Gross.
The other theme of this film is the idea of passion being the thing that sustains a person, and that their passion will always win out. Jess tracks down Marzin by understanding him and realizing one of his passions is baseball–so she hangs out in a bar where retired ball players go until one day he shows up. She says that her passion was her daughter, who defined her life. So her passion for Caroline became her need for vengeance on Marzin, something that powered her through thirteen years of keeping him prisoner and never breathing a word to anyone until it got one of her fellow officers killed.
This also plays out in the relationship between Ray and Claire. They obviously have a real thing for each other, starting in 2002. But Claire’s engaged to a hedge fund manager, and Ray’s too good of a guy to try to get between them. 13 years later, we find out that Claire’s husband is well aware and resigned to the fact that she’s really in love with Ray. The one time we see him, Ray is at Claire’s house, and Claire’s husband says, “Why don’t you move him in. He’s already been here for 12 years.” Whereas Claire asks Ray why he didn’t ask her to come with him, and Ray says because that way he can believe she might have. Ray understands Claire’s real passion is her career, not him. It’s a very deftly and subtly played character point.
Good writing and good acting makes for a 111 minute dive into deep, dark emotional waters.